Jump Ball: CBS, Turner Talk Up Hoops Collaboration

McManus, Levy relive March Madness pact

When CBS and Turner Sports hashed out a deal to share the rights to March Madness back in April 2010,  president of CBS News and Sports Sean McManus said the partnership “put us on solid financial footing for lasting profitability.” Without a cable partner, the broadcaster would have been hard pressed to renew its rights package; in shouldering half the burden, Turner not only kept CBS in the college hoops business, but it fast-tracked its own ambitions to become a big-time sports leader.

McManus and David Levy (Turner Broadcasting System’s president of sales, distribution and sports) on Wednesday recounted the back story behind the 14-year, $10.8 billion deal, a blockbuster born out of CBS’ need to cut costs while expanding to an all-live format.

“They needed four channels if they were going to carry every game live,” Levy said. “It was a question of necessity. Sean didn’t have the channels and we did.”

At the time the deal was hashed out, sources suggested that Turner would shoulder a greater portion of the rights fee in exchange for a bigger wedge of the ad sales pie. Levy said it’s actually a far more equal split. “We are equal partners,” he said. “Every sales dollar that comes in goes into one single pot.”

For all that, McManus said the merger of the two media cultures hasn’t always been seamless. “We agreed that [controversial TNT analyst] Charles Barkley would be a great addition to the broadcast team,” he said. Trouble was, McManus talked up Barkley’s new role before Levy had had an opportunity to ask Sir Charles if he’d like to come on board.

“I announced it at a [major] sports conference,” McManus said. “As soon as I opened my mouth, David looked at me . . . and I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, I wasn’t supposed to say that, was I?’”

Per Kantar Media estimates, CBS and Turner in 2010 shared $613.8 million in March Madness ad sales revenue, up 4 percent from the year-ago $588.7 million. Over the last decade, the tourney coverage has generated $4.85 billion in ad sales.

Levy said both parties would put a greater premium on digital and social media as the second year of the partnership rolls around. And while Twitter lends a real-time interactive element to the games, diving into the conversation isn’t for the weak of heart.

NCAA svp of basketball and business strategies Greg Shaheen said he unplugged from social media last March after reading tweets suggesting he “do something anatomically impossible with the bracket. “I stayed away from Twitter for a month,” Shaheen cracked.

When asked if he saw any other big-ticket collaborations on the horizon, Levy said the joint partnership between Fox-ABC Sports/ESPN for the rights to the Pac-12 Conference demonstrates the value of sharing the load.

“We’re going to see more and more of these type of deals,” Levy said. “I don’t see sports rights pricing going down any time soon, and this is the best way to relieve the burden.”